Does Philanthropy Really Need Reinventing?
“Philanthropy is broken, and almost everyone knows it.” So says Eric Friedman in his book Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework For More Effective Giving.
I admit I was surprised to hear this.
I’ve been working in the philanthropic sector since 1975. I’ve served as an executive director and chief development officer. I’ve been a sought-after consultant for 26 years, specializing in fund development, governance, and strategic planning. I’ve founded two organizations. I regularly serve on boards, often ending up as chair. I’ve written 3 books, considered standards in the field. I present all over the world and talk with fundraisers and donors all over the world.
Now if someone had said “fundraising is broken and almost everyone knows it…” I’d chime in. Same goes for governance. Just read my blog, Simone Uncensored. Read my web columns at the Nonprofit Quarterly. And read all the other great bloggers, fundraisers, researchers who write about fundraising.
There is so much to improve in fund development and governance.
But philanthropy – voluntary action for the common good – is broken?
Not so much. In fact, the nonprofit/NGO sector continues to grow around the world. More and more citizens everywhere give charitable gifts. More and more people volunteer time. You and I and so many others voluntarily take action for the common good. We are philanthropists – regardless of how much we give.
Mr. Friedman’s interpretation of “broken philanthropy” refers to where people give money.
My disclosure: I haven’t yet read Mr. Friedman’s book. However, I’ve ordered it and will read it. I read the first chapter of the book online. I read an interview with Mr. Friedman. I read the reviews and testimonials from Amazon.com. And I read Mr. Friedman’s HuffPo blog posted 11/12/13.
So I’m responding to all that.
I must say, after reading the HuffPo blog, I was incensed and ranting and raving. After reading the other stuff, I was less incensed but still concerned.
Here are my thoughts – including some ranting and raving!
“The causes that receive the most donations are not typically the ones that make the greatest impact.”
So says Mr. Friedman in his HuffPo blog post.
First, good research does not exist about what might be considered the greatest impact, nor which groups deliver the greatest impact.
In fact, what does impact mean, anyway? Different nonprofits define their impact differently. Different donors differently define what impact they wish to produce and wish to see.
And the charity watchdogs have made the biggest mess of conversations about overhead and impact and quality and effectiveness. Amusingly, after great hue and outcry from the nonprofit sector – the three big watchdogs issued a statement about “the myth of overhead.” As if they’d discovered the myth rather than promoted the myth for years. And those watchdogs didn’t have the courage to claim responsibility for promoting the myth in the first place.
“[F]ew people acknowledge that the giving based on the donor’s personal unresearched whims dramatically reduces the impact of the gift.”
Mr. Friedman poses the question: “[S]houldn’t a central tenet [of philanthropy] be to try to provide the greatest benefits possible?” And with this in mind, Mr. Friedman concludes that “donor-driven strategies should be widely regarded as failed philanthropy.”
Apparently, following one’s passion is only okay if the impact is sufficiently large. But who is deciding all this?
Mr. Friedman does say that people have the right to choose where to give. But he’s distressed by people following their own passions.
He goes on to say, “Today’s dominant paradigm of giving is centered around the emotional fulfillment of donors. Donors give to the causes they care about…. This type of giving itself is not dishonest; the lack of truthfulness is that few people acknowledge that giving based on the donor’s personal unresearched whims dramatically reduces the impact of the gift.”
My personal passion is social justice – leveling the playing field for women and girls and gays and lesbians and people of color. As a white heterosexual woman, I’m advantaged through birth – except for gender because that is a disadvantage in every country in the world. But my race and sexual orientation are a distinct advantage.
I wish more donors would give more money to social justice. But I will not make a value judgment about gifts to arts and culture. I also love arts and culture. And I believe communities need arts and culture.
I give to social justice before I give to food and shelter and the arts. I know that others give to food and shelter and the arts and eliminating cancer and and…
I count on others to give where their passions lie. I count on them to share their philanthropic passions and interests, their stories, in various venues through various means. I will do the same.
I don’t believe that any of us has the right to judge the philanthropy of another. As much as I despise those who fight against reproductive justice and fight against gun control and fight against climate problems, I don’t question their right to choose and act.
To provide the greatest benefits possible? Yes, indeed. That would mean giving all gifts to social justice because if we had social justice we wouldn’t have homelessness and unemployment and underemployment and starvation and and and …
But without charitable gifts to arts and culture, what would be the point of living? And without gifts to public colleges and universities, where would people go to school?
Whims. Failed philanthropy. Do you feel appropriately chastised?
Donor centrism and emotions
You know that concept of customer-centered? That strategy that pays attention to the customer’s interests and doesn’t try to sell leather car seats to someone who doesn’t care?
That’s what donor-centered is. Knowledge of what interests the donor (who is a customer, after all.) Respect and care for the donor and customer, too.
Donor centrism, like customer centrism, is good business. And yes, philanthropy and its essential partner fund development, is business.
Emotions aren’t sufficiently important? Emotions are those whims again? Because philanthropic decisions engage emotions, philanthropy is broken? Oh my.
Neuroscience is a relatively new field, invented because of MRIs. Now scientists can see what happens in the brain as we humans experience life.
Guess what? Neuroscience proves that pretty much all human decisions are triggered by emotions. Sure, we may rationalize quickly thereafter, but the stimulus is emotional.
How does any one of us know how many donors follow their heart, and match the heart with some of that rational thinking? How do any of us know – whether me or Mr. Friedman – how all those millions of donors use their emotions and the research that the particular donor chooses to examine?
Giving a gift is lots like buying a product. Emotions drive the decision-making! But in buying the product, we actually receive something tangible. Like that iPhone or iPad. (Talk about customer centrism and customer loyalty!)
When giving a gift, what we receive is intangible but vitally important to our well being. (Yes, there’s research about that).
The intangible is feelings. I feel like a made a difference. I feel like I fought a good fight for change. Another donor smiles because she helped a child smile. Another donor fed the families in an African village for one month.
Donors should feel proud of what they’ve done – yes, even if it was a gift to their alma mater. Donors feel less angry after they give for social justice because marriage equality has now passed in their state.
Yes, indeed. Emotions. Feelings. They make the world go ‘round. Emotions expressed in professionally written fundraising material produce gifts. Honoring donors for their gifts – in a printed donor report or on a website or through a gracious thank-you call… All these matter.
By the way: Without well written professional fundraising materials that tell stories and engage the emotions of prospects and donors – without all that – there is very little action.
Emotional acts. Emotional fulfillment. Engaging the heart. Yes. That is love. That is life. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Gloria Steinem… And all the people who volunteered time and invested money because of anger, fear, guilt, a sense of salvation.
If you leave personal passion and emotion out of the equation, charitable giving will decrease substantially. Philanthropy is not the rational investment in some IPO. (And even the investment in an IPO is not all that rational. Just think of the frenzy for Facebook and the Wall Street debacle and the pension funds…)
Yes, sure, encourage people to do some research if you wish. But never ever underestimate the importance of engaging emotions. Without that emotional engagement, philanthropy mostly doesn’t happen. Research proves that. Real research.
Don’t confuse philanthropy with government action
Too many people confuse philanthropy – voluntary action for the common good – with government action.
Increasing philanthropy – which is the goal of those of us working in the nonprofit sector – will not fix all the problems in the world. More charitable gifts (given more wisely for greater impact, according to Mr. Friedman) will not solve the problems.
Healthcare is not a business, it is a human right and that means it requires government action. All the civilized countries in the world understand that, but not the overly-capitalist society of the U.S.
Unemployment is a marketplace issue. Charitable gifts won’t compensate for weak educational systems, no living wage, and technology.
I expect my government – and the governments elsewhere in the world – to tax appropriately, legislate well, and ensure successful societies. I expect the nonprofit philanthropic sector to challenge and push government, and provide services that government cannot provide.
But right now, I think government doesn’t do enough rights in the right ways. And I think government – and too many people – expect philanthropy to compensate.
You know where we really need a new book? Getting government – certainly in the U.S. – to get its act together. To stop the excessive investment in the military and invest in education and infrastructure. To legislate living wages and gun control and basic human rights.
One other thought
One of the beauties of philanthropy is that everyone can give. And the donor of $25 is as important as the donor of $25,000 or $25,000,000. I’m wondering if Mr. Friedman’s book considers that?
There are just too many assumptions in what I have read from Mr. Friedman thus far. Too many unsubstantiated assumptions that are actually belied by research.
And too much chastising and insults to donors.
The assumption that emotional fulfillment and public recognition (which can cause others to give) are not only unimportant – but conflict with maximizing the impact – is unfair and false.
What’s next? I look forward to reading the book. Maybe I’ll have more thoughts.
If you want to read some good books that can offer insights in response to Mr. Friedman’s Reinventing Philanthropy, visit the resource blogs on my website.
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Michael J. Rosen, CFRE